Heavenly Utility: Revelation 3 – 4

More Letters: Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea. God’s Throne. Eternal Creatures.

“Day and night they never stop saying:
                  ‘Holy, holy, holy
          is the Lord God Almighty,
who was, and is, and is to come.’’”
Revelation 4:8 (NIV)

If you have been following along at home, you know that the prospect of eternal life is the most terrifying thing I can imagine. The fear started when I was very young – I had my first panic attack about it around six years old. My parents thought it was odd, perhaps even cute. I was so young that I couldn’t even understand what a tremendous gift I had been given. Something like that. I learned the word “apeirophobia” – the fear of infinity. I was shocked to learn it was a real, diagnosable fear. Intervention to help with it? Eh… learn to get over it.

So I have never had any real interest in Heaven. Sure, the eternal paradise part sounds nice, but at the end of the day, it still seems like a tarantula wrapped up in a really nice bow. (Oh, I have arachnophobia as well) A pastor once told my congregation that heaven will be awesome. We will all have jobs and social lives, just like on Earth. I would love to find that pastor and beg him to show me the biblical proof of that, as I have just read the whole Bible and got back nada on that front.

A therapist once told me that my fear is rooted in an inability to visualize eternity. I said that might be true and asked how I might do that. She said she didn’t know.

Revelation gives us our first glimpse into Heaven. A spirit whisks John up the throne of God, which is surrounded by 24 elders seated in their own thrones. The man sitting on the central throne looks of jasper, ruby, and rainbow, and the elders wear white robes and gold crowns.

Then, there are four unnamed beasts, but luckily, John tells us they looked like a lion, an ox, a human, and an eagle. Each has six wings and eyes covering every part of their body (even under the wings). These creatures sing “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come” forever on a loop. Meanwhile, the 24 elders bow down and worship God forever.

Don’t believe me? Read it for yourself.

I am not sure any seven-year-old wants to here that description of Heaven. I think that would make them want to maybe give Hell a try. Both sound like unique forms of torture to me.

But let’s game this out for the benefit of the doubt. If Heaven truly is just praising God forever and ever and we are eternally blissful doing it, then wouldn’t it still be paradise? Maybe we are no longer capable of feeling monotony?

I am always curious how people conceptualize the Heaven (or the afterlife in general). So I ask, what do you think of it? Send me an e-mail or chime in below. Honestly, there’s only two weeks left. Now’s your chance.

You know my opinion. To quote the opening line of Arcade Fire’s aptly titled song “Afterlife:”

“Afterlife. Oh my God, what an awful word.”

Global Warming: Revelation 1 – 2

The First Vision of Christ. Seven Stars for Seven Lampstands. To Ephesus. To Smyrna. To Pergamum. To Thyatira.

“Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later…”
Revelation 1:19 (NIV)

Global warming used to be this hot button topic in the stratosphere of abortion or gay marriage. I remember a time when taking a stance on it could spell controversy. Thought global warming was some true-to-life phenomenon in the mid-90s? Almost assuredly, you were labeled as some sort of liberal hippie – or worse, an environmentalist – hell bent on destroying the economy with some unnecessary laws.

It was Thanksgiving of my 16th year when I came out. Not as gay, oh no, I held onto that one for a long, long time. No, I came out as a global warming believer. I was shocked my parents felt strongly the other way about it. My father had taken me camping every year of my life, and he had always taught us to be extraordinarily careful with the environment. Only use dead trees as hiking sticks. Leave no trace of our tracks. Never disturb nature. And yet here I was, arguing with them about whether human activity had any effect of on the efficacy of the global ecosystem. It seemed so ridiculous.

On the eve of high school, I spent a weeklong vacation in Atlanta with my aunt and uncle. They were extraordinarily liberal in comparison to my parents and completely non-religious. It is a wonder my parents let me stay with them at all. On my last night of the trip as we prepared to go to sleep before my early flight the next morning, my aunt wanted to know why my mother was so fervent in her disbelief about global warming. This was in the mid-2000s, and the science had begun to meet up with the hunches of the masses. She just could not believe that Christians (as a majority) thought global warming was a myth.

Then I told her about Noah and how God promised with the rainbow to never subject his people to a massive flood ever again (the most likely result of global warming back in those times). Also, many believers in global warming thought that inaction would mean the death of humanity in catastrophic fashion. Christians, I told her, could never believe that. There was a book called Revelation that detailed exactly how it would unfold. There would be horsemen of the apocalypse and ancient broken seals. The antichrist would rule the world, and then Jesus would come back to destroy him.

No global warming. No giant flood. No weird weather patterns. Their reason for disbelief was simple. It wasn’t in the Bible.

We have reached the End folks. Here is the last book of the Bible, the one that filled me with the most anxiety growing up (but more on that later). In the last two weeks of this blog, we will explore exactly how the End is laid out in the Bible.

To start, it is fairly tame.

John has a vision of Jesus, who says, “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches.” (1:10) With that, we get the frame for the book. This is meant to be a warning to all who read it – a vision from John to be delivered to the rest of the church.

Let’s see what it says, shall we?

Some Caveats: 2 John, 3 John, Jude

Three Short Letters.

“I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another.”
2 John 5 (NIV)

Like the minor prophets of the Old Testament, the three final letters of the New Testament are among the least read books of the Bible. They are short (so people think they’re unimportant), and their subject matter is redundant (hence… unimportant). As a yearlong reader of the Bible, I wonder about why these were included at all.

I wonder…

I give you three mini-entries about these three peculiar books, taking my best stab at why they exist in the first place.


2 JOHN 

John’s second letter is addressed to an unnamed woman who he is encouraging in faith. We get a few mentions of antichrists (who, by the way, is every non-Christian) and reminders about love. And then, John drops this little number:

“If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them.” (2 John 10)

This seems to be the only new information that John is bringing to the conversation. We have heard several times now that Christians should not mingle around with Pagans, but on the other hand, the Bible has made it pretty damn clear that hospitality is an important part of love. It seems that John is adding a caveat to the latter – that we should not be hospitable to non-believers. Or maybe he means those who actively campaign against God – I don’t know.


3 JOHN

“I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing…” (3 John 9 – 10)

Ironically, John complains about an inhospitable Christian in his third letter. By the sound of it, there is a guy named Diotrephes who refuses to welcome John into his church. So this letter acts as a warning. John is coming anyway, and he is not happy. He says he will “call attention” to what this wayward elder is doing.

My best guess? This letter is about both inhospitality and sin within the church. John is certainly eager to call out Diotrephes in a public way, chastising him in the name of God.

Oh, and speaking of sin…


JUDE 

“Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.” (Jude 22 – 23)

Ah, so that’s where the whole “love the sinner, hate the sin” comes from. “Show mercy, mixed with fear.” That’s a fascinating concept.

I also find it interesting that Jude delineates between a person who is in doubt and “others.” There are believers and non-believers, and then there are those in a faith purgatory. And those people deserve all of our mercy.

But to the “others,” they deserve 50% fear.

Also:

“But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’” (9)

Archangel Michael and the devil in a fight over the body of Moses? HOW is that the only mention of this in the Bible? We got three books of outdated rules in the Torah and someone this managed to squeeze by unmentioned?

Unacceptable.

On Monday… we move into the final book. Two weeks left!

It’s All About the Love: 1 John

Love. Love. Love (Except for the World). Love. Love. Love (Except for Idols).

No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
1 John 4:12 (NIV)

The structure of the Bible has been fascinating thus far. I realize this book did not just drop from the sky (some people may actually believe that though…), and it was constructed by piecing together documents and scrolls over the course of a millennium. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised then that it comes in a very effective order. And it is not necessarily chronologic. It is much more thematic.

For instance, Jesus spent a good deal of time hitting home the basics (the times have changed, love everyone, love God), and as such, he did not spend much time on specific proclamations. The Gospels are meant to prove to us that Jesus Christ is the one to follow. Then in the Book of Acts, we got the sort of straight-to-video sequel to the Gospels… less compelling, but more of the same and a continuation of that. Then, with the Christians properly scattered about the continent, we move into the letters, which inform Christian people how they ought to behave now that they are Christian. This is where we get the vast majority of the “practices.” We were told all it took was a belief in Jesus. These letters update that slightly, saying “Well… a belief in Jesus should have all of these facets.” Like keeping your marriage bed pure and avoiding sexual immorality and behaving in church and so on. (Jesus did mention some specifics, but my impression that his brush painted far broader strokes) And now we have reached the post-Paul letters and what is on everybody’s minds here, so near the end of the Bible?

Well… the end of the world. After all, John opens one of the first sections with the salutation “Dear children, this is the last hour.” (1:18) Wowee, that is alarmist. He goes on to mention the antichrist as well as the many antichrists (?) who have descended on the scene. This is it, folks. [Insert giddy giggle for the forthcoming Book of Revelations] John is here to give us some final warnings to prepare our hearts for the Tribulation. And so what does he have to say?

“Love.” He mentions the word 46 times in a mere five chapters. Here’s a quick rundown:

Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light. (1:10)
Do not love the world or anything in the world. (1:15)
For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. (3:11)
Dear friends, let us love one another. (4:7)
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. (4:20)
(…and 41 more references)

After 300 odd entries, I think we all know that I enjoy reading between the lines. So let me give it a stab here…

I think they want us to love everyone. And since the end is coming swiftly, they think it is very very important that we start loving immediately.

Look at that – no nihilistic ending or downbeat conclusion. Let’s just love.

For the end is nigh.

(Okay, that is a little nihilistic)

Standards and Practices: 2 Peter

A Whole Bunch of Looking Ahead (and Some Looking Back).

“But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you.”
2 Peter 2:1 (NIV)

Things were so simple when I was younger.

Believe in Jesus and go to Heaven. That was basically the meat of my entire existence growing up. I read about hardship in the Bible and how God tests us. There were numerous passages about persecution – Jesus’ crucifixion as the prime example – and how we should rejoice the opportunity to stand in defiance of opposition. Every hero of the Bible came with an appropriate enemy he needed to dismantle. For Noah, it was the entire world. Moses had Pharaoh. David fled for years from Saul. I never dealt with any of that. In the story of Jesse, no pagan antagonist could ever be found.

That isn’t to say I was happy-go-lucky my whole life. Kids picked on me in Elementary School, because I was shy and painfully awkward. But that was in Christian school. Then in High School, the people who tortured me the most were teachers who thought I was annoying. But for every foe, I had a friend, and while I am not always the keenest optimist, I got by almost entirely unscathed.

This was surprising, considering how often the Bible mentions false prophets and evildoers who will not only persecute us but also entrap us into bad behavior. Peter considers these false prophets in a particularly distasteful light. In his second letter to the Christian community, he says “in their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories,” and that “blackest darkness is reserved for them.” (2:3,17) That is quite an indictment of these individuals. “Blackest darkness?” That’s the Bible-way saying “There is a special place in Hell for you!” He goes on, calling them “slaves of depravity” with “eyes full of adultery.”

With so much of the Bible dedicated towards these false prophets, I have to wonder. Where are all of them?

Are they Mormon teachers, manipulating God’s word? Or are they prosperity preachers, taking the money of followers for their own gain?

Perhaps… but I think there are just… regular non-Christian people.

Have you ever heard of Burning Man? It is this communal festival of sorts that takes place in the desert of Nevada each summer. People come from all over, building a community that lasts a week on the auspice of “radical self-reliance.” It features a number of camps, art installations, and spiritual experiences. It is also notorious for its wild drug and sex culture; there is even something called the “Orgy Dome.” But all that said, I have never met a person with a negative story to tell about it. They usually describe it all as life-changing, particularly for the vast acceptance of all people and the sense of togetherness.

I’m fairly certain that most Christians think of it as a modern Sodom and Gomorrah.

I have never been, so I won’t draw any conclusions about it, but honestly, that’s not even the point. When the Bible refers to “false prophets,” I think they are warning us against people like those at Burning Man – anyone with a belief outside of Christianity.

And yes, maybe there are a few people on pulpits sharing lie after lie in the name of Christianity, but I don’t think that’s what Peter cares about here.

Guys, I’m struggling to bring this to some conclusion. But unfortunately, today is just one of those days where I write a rambling jumble of thoughts.

Are You Willing? : 1 Peter 4 – 5

Suffer and Lead.

“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve.”
1 Peter 5:2 (NIV)

My sister had a high school boyfriend that I did not like. His name was Blake, and he was a Bible-thumping, manly-man with a solid build and pointed eyes. He reminded me of many of the older adolescent Christian men wading through my school and church. He was single-minded on religious issues and believed strongly in abstinence before marriage. I cannot speak for my sister (who is married to someone else now, by the way), but I think she was attracted equally to his spirituality and his charm. He doled out compliments in plentiful measure and related everything back to his spiritual journey. A perfect man’s man for God. What wasn’t there to like?

See, I thought it was all phony. Not his religious fervor – that seemed completely legit. No, it was the charm that bothered me the most. It seemed like Blake needed people to like him so that my sister would fall in love with him. We were all chips that needed to be acquired in order to gain the full affection of my sister. I felt it, and perhaps my parents did as well – thought I can’t be certain.

So one night while we all sat around the dinner table, my sister asked us what we thought about Blake. I spoke up first:

I said I didn’t like him.
She asked why?
I said he was fake, simple as that.
She went hmmmm.

And no one else chimed in.

A week later, Blake called the house, asking for me. I looked at my mother puzzled when she handed me the phone. She had no idea why he wanted to talk to me either. As it turned out, he wanted to get to know me better and wanted to take me to a movie. My pick, whatever I wanted. I reluctantly agreed, rolling my eyes all along. Ugh, I thought, he’s doing it again. He definitely doesn’t care about me!

I picked Ocean’s Eleven, and it was playing in this theater in Plymouth Meeting. There were two theaters in that town, so I gave him careful instructions on which one to go to.

He told me I was wrong, and drove to the other one. As it turned out, Ocean’s Eleven wasn’t playing there. The only movie available was a Chris Rock comedy called Down to Earth. I told him I had already seen it, and I hated it. He looked at me like… okay… I sighed and said it was fine. I suffered through it a second time, furious. At the end of it, he said he was so glad we got to hang out, and I should tell my sister all about it. I sighed again.

They broke up a little while later.

God tells us to be shepherds to others, not because we must, but because we are willing.

I like that. And I think that is important. So much of the Bible seems like “musts,” but we all know that people much more enjoys the “willings.”

And I promise that whatever I do, I will do it because I am willing, even if I do it also because I must.

Price of Admission: 1 Peter 1 – 3

God Is Great. Remain Holy. Yeah, You Were Predestined. Temptations in Pagan Culture. Undue Suffering.

But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do.
Peter 1:15 (NIV)

There are tons of people who say that they are Christian. That should come as a surprise to no one considering how large the Christian religion is. Almost a third of the world’s population identifies as a follower of one of the sects of Christianity, so, yeah, throw a stone down the street and try not to hit a believer. As I have said, I was secluded from non-Christians growing up, just by the fact that I went to a private Christian school, so needless to say, I felt most comfortable around people who believed in Jesus Christ.

Some seemed more Christian than others.

There was this kid in my middle school who cursed all the time and was generally a mean guy. But he prayed when told to and did all the Bible study stuff. Did he count?

Then, this couple used to babysit us when my parents went out with my aunts and uncles, but they read books by Bill Maher and Hillary Clinton. Certainly they weren’t actually Christian.

A girl at school said she was a “Messianic Jew,” and that didn’t sound right to me.

The notion I learned was that all a person has to do is accept Jesus into his or her heart. This could be done at age five or on a deathbed; it didn’t matter (although, I was warned not to put it off). So I believed that – all it took was a personal relationship with Jesus. But in practice, it seemed to be that a bunch of other things were thrown in as addendums to that sole requirement. We needed to believe that Jesus is God and that the Holy Spirit existed as part of a trinity. The Bible was the literal word of God, and we had to believe every word in it. When I sinned, I needed to ask for forgiveness immediately.

The list goes on.

So what is the price of admission into Christianity?

The Book of 1 Peter kicks off in a typical fashion for the latter New Testament entries. A declaration of who is speaking (Peter) and who is addressed (a bunch of provinces I promise you don’t care about). A mention of Jesus, and then… a list of advice about some common areas of need.

The section that caught my eye concerned wives and how they ought to act. Six verses are dedicated to the subject, asking them to submit to their husbands and avoid glitzy dress and hairstyle. They ought to grow their inner beauty, which is what really matters.

Husbands get one verse. Here it is:

“Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” (3:7)

So according to Peter, wives are “the weaker partner.”

And so I have to wonder… is this a price of admission? Am I required to believe in Jesus and think that wives are inherently weaker in their unions? Can I think homosexuality is okay? Do I really have to believe [fill in the blank with every other controversial opinion in the Bible]?

The answer is that some think these are prices of admission and some don’t.

I don’t know which of those people I am.

Violence! Violence! : James 4 – 5

A Tonal Shift. Anything from God Is Good. Bragging about Riches and Success. Wait Out Suffering. Pray for Everything.

“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?”
James 4:1 (NIV)

I always regret using the first verse of a passage as my epitaph quote, because I secretly worry that you all think, Oh so he just picked the very first thing he saw and then closed the Bible and washed his hands. You aren’t thinking that. I know that. But I worry all the same.

The theme of violence is ever recurring in the Bible, and verses seemingly in support of violence have been oft quoted to support extreme actions all over the world. The opposite can be said as well. Many point to the verses, particularly in the New Testament, which plead with us to pursue peace rather than conflict. I understand the confusion, and I sort of get it no matter which was you slice it. On the one hand, God called upon Joshua to commit an ethnic cleansing against the inhabitants of the Promised Land once the Israelites had arrived. They killed man, woman, child, and animal. Pretty harsh. And yet only 40 years early on Mt. Sinai, Moses trudged down the hill and laid down a pretty clear commandment: Thou shalt not kill. However, that in the context of a larger Law, which allowed men and women to be killed for committing capital crimes (those of which I will not list here for this will become a 6-part marathon entry). So we can conclude that perhaps the commandment refers to “murder,” and that capital crime does not count. But what about the children in the Promised Land? Did they deserve to be killed? Were not those doing the dirty work… killing? Add all that to the face that God once destroyed the world through a flood, because men had become “evil” and “violent.” So in that case, violence is a negative thing, a sin worthy of extinction.

So… there’s all that.

Ecclesiastes seems to settle some things. It says that there is a “time for war” and a “time for peace.” So it looks to be another little gray area.

But then Jesus comes onto the field and really digs into this whole peace thing? He’s all like love one another and turn the other cheek. They call him the Prince of Peace after all!

There is absolutely no consensus about this amongst Christians. You’ll meet one gaggle of gun-totting, America-conquering enthusiast in a church, and then right next door, an enclave Quakers will be praying for peace. Some believe in capital punishment. Some think it is despicable and anti-Christian.

My personal conclusions aren’t super clarifying. Peace feels right to me, so I’m opposed to war and capital punishment. Do I think war is necessary sometimes? Yes. Would I kill someone who was trying to kill me? Yes, if I could.

Ambivalence, once again.

I just think that peace is a good idea and something all of our actions should strive towards.
I think Jesus preached that pretty clearly.
I think I really, really liked Jesus.

There you go, there are my conclusions.

To end, here is one of my favorite cinematic moments. A fight breaks out and what does the mousy girl do? Claps her hands and cheers them on. How modern of her:

Just Listen: James 1 – 3

Some Advice for All: Temptation, Listening, Equality, Faith, Words.

“…Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”
James 1:19-20 (NIV)

The Book of James was the unabashed favorite amongst my teenage group of friends, and reading it now, I can certainly see why. It is a succinct book (at a scant five chapters) that offers encouragement on how to live a life worthy of Christ. The tone is uplifting rather than disparaging (a must for a young audience). Furthermore, it is actually relevant to a modern person – something increasingly rare the farther I get into the Bible. It offers lessons on how to resist temptation and where it comes from (hint: not God). It inspires us to reach out to the least amongst us. It reassures us with promises of peace.

Good book, James. Well done.

So what to write about? What jumps out at me in the sea of all these topics? Do I muse over wisdom or get on my pedestal about poverty?

I don’t know. The last few weeks have been tough, honestly. No, nothing has “happened” per se, nothing that would make writing and reading any more difficult than usual. I am so close to the end that – logically – I should be feeling pumped up to cross the finish line. But I don’t know. I feel very unsure.

A couple weeks ago, I took a sunset walk and called my parents. I told them I had been feeling anxious and down, that it felt like a cloud of uncertainty had descended, one reminiscent of those days from long ago, those days filled with panic attacks over eternity and death, and insurmountable it all seemed.

They wondered why, what caused it, there must have been a trigger.
And I said, no, no trigger.
And they said, think, what could it be?
And I said, I’m telling you I honestly don’t know.
And they relented.

There was concern in their voice. My father took longer pauses then usual. This was all in the past, right? This anxiety was all in the past. Why was it back?

My mother had a theory. She said that I have spent a year of my life digging everything up and going through it with a magnifying glass. I was like a detective amongst a sea of evidence, trying to decipher what meant something and what was a red herring. Maybe, she thought, that is an emotionally exhausting process, and maybe it brings back feelings that went dormant long ago.

It made a lot of sense.

I have spent a year doing nothing except thinking and talking. I mentioned this a few weeks ago, but honestly, I am so looking forward to taking a step back to listen for a while.

And in honor of the Book of James, which is without a doubt the most positive of the bunch, I have decided to take a break and just listen today.

SIDENOTE OF THE DAY: Wait ’til Marriage

(This didn’t fit either the tone or topic of my previous entry, so I thought I’d add it as a little “extra”) 

So I’ve been waiting and waiting like a stood up prom date for the whole “wait until marriage to have sex verse.” And then, just as Hebrews came to a close, I stumbled upon it.

“Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.”
Hebrews 13:4 (NIV)

I could argue that by saying keeping the marriage bed “pure” the author refers to adultery, which is mentioned a mere six words later. But hey, I can’t die on every hill.